Let’s be honest. 2020 has been a doozy. For some of us, Thanksgiving (both the holiday and the act of giving thanks) feels like a challenge this year. Beloved traditions have given way to COVID-19 precautions, and we are deep in a season of loss and uncertainty.
Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday since 1989 when I was a freshman in college. I was 3000 miles away from home and desperately in need of some TLC. Lucky for me, my Aunt Vicki and Uncle Richard took me in for the long weekend. Never before had I so deeply appreciated the comfort of family and the restorative power of a delicious home cooked meal. My Aunt Vicki worked her magic in the kitchen, and true to her Italian heritage, the first course was a brothy greens-filled soup. As soon as I tasted my first spoonful, I knew Thanksgiving would be my favorite holiday forever.
Once I started teaching, Thanksgiving took on a new level of importance for me. For teachers, the period between the start of school and Thanksgiving is often the most challenging stretch of the year. During those first few months of school, teachers are getting to know their students, and each day is a series of puzzles as teachers try to figure out what each student needs to thrive. Teachers and students have not yet developed the rhythm and trust that makes the best classrooms feel like extended families.
My first year of teaching was 1996. I was living with my dear friend and fellow first-year teacher, Sofi. We had a strong sense of camaraderie, but we struggled with the near constant sense of failure that defines first-year teaching. If we were awake, we were working. We loved our jobs and our students, but we were only two months into our new careers and we were already on the verge of burning out.
The night before Thanksgiving that year, Sofi and I collapsed with utter exhaustion into the two big cozy recliners at my dad’s house. We had been running on fumes for weeks. The next few days – filled with family, plenty of lounging and inordinate amounts of food – revived and fortified us. I am certain that I would not have survived my first few years of teaching if it weren’t for my family’s annual Thanksgiving extravaganzas.
For many years, members of my family have traveled to the Bay Area for Thanksgiving from all regions of the country: Boston, New York, Kansas City, Austin, Los Angeles. My dad and stepmom host close to fifty people each year, not just for one day of Thanksgiving but for a weeklong celebration of family and food. For days on end, we gather at their house, we catch up, we laugh, we eat, and then we eat some more. In addition to a turkey feast on Thanksgiving, over the years we have had ribs flown in from Texas and lobsters from Maine. There have been multi-generational dance parties and Chanakah gift exchanges. There have been years of sickness and plenty of tears. One year my wife, Nancy, was in the midst of chemotherapy and did not have hair. Our reunion is just like life: full and busy and messy and beautiful.
Thankfully, my cousin Stephanie organizes a family photo shoot each Thanksgiving, documenting both tradition and change. On my grandmother’s 90th birthday, she patiently (stubbornly?) wrangled six toddlers into a photo with our beloved Grammy Roz. Those toddlers from that classic photo are now in high school and college, and our beloved Grammy passed ten years ago. At first, we gathered at Thanksgiving because we recognized that our time with Grammy was short, and we knew how much it meant to her. Now, years later we continue to gather because Grammy taught us to cherish our time together.
Due to the pandemic, there is no Olken Thanksgiving extravaganza this year. Like families across the country, we will gather in our individual households and connect via Zoom for larger connections. Yes, I profoundly feel the loss and sadness of this, as I have felt throughout shelter-in-place since March. As a society, how many traditions and rituals have we had to reimagine this year? Graduations, birthdays, quinceaneras, bat mitzvahs, memorial services, and holidays of all sorts. But here’s the good news. We are creative. Thanksgiving is about so much more than the meal itself. It’s about family, memories, connection, memories, rest, joy, and of course gluttony. None of that is cancelled this year.
In honor of Thanksgiving, I am sharing a partial list of my thanks.
- I am thankful for Nancy and that after 8+ months of shelter-in-place we are still laughing and loving each other.
- I am thankful to have three (!) living and loving parents.
- I am thankful for Kevin and the kind, compassionate and hilarious man he has become.
- I am thankful for my furry best friend, Cody.
- I am thankful for my family and for old friends who are even dearer to me now than they were a year ago. You know who you are.
- I am thankful for new friends who, remarkably, the pandemic has brought into my life and have quickly become confidants, mentors, and conspirators.
- I am thankful for Gateway – my incredible colleagues, my inspiring students, and the entire community that has enriched my life for more than twenty years.
- I am thankful for the outcome of the election and change on the horizon.
- I am thankful for the life and legacies of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Lewis, as well as everyday leaders and heroes who continue the march towards justice each day.
- I am thankful for science.
- I am thankful for random moments of connection, kindness, and laughter.
- I am thankful for music, the beauty and power of words, cocktails, and Pilates.
- I am thankful for sunrises, light in the clouds, hummingbirds and pelicans, and heart-shaped rocks.
- I am thankful for Beth Harmon, the Rose family, and Eleanor Shellstrop.
- I am thankful for all that I still have to learn. I am thankful for the capacity to forgive and let go. I am thankful for resilience.
The list is long, and I am just getting started…